In a feisty opening address to the international conference on cyberspace that started in London on Tuesday, British Foreign secretary William Hague issued a direct challenge to China and Russia, saying that cyberspace must not be “stifled by government control or censorship” or become “ghettoized,” the Guardian reports.
“Nothing would be more fatal or self-defeating than the heavy hand of state control on the Internet, which only thrives because of the talent of individuals and of industry within an open market for ideas and innovation,” Hague told delegates, speaking out against a proposed international treaty in which government would police the Internet.
An anti-censorship group, however, accused the government of doublespeak, pointing out that after the London riots Prime Minister David Cameron had considered restricting BlackBerry messaging and other social media.
At the time, Cameron issued a direct warning that the government would look at shutting down BBM if it was being used to “plot” crime, and a man was sent to court for planning a water fight via BBM. Some alleged that the government was even monitoring BBM, a closed communications network.
Hence the skepticism that greeted Hague’s comments Tuesday. Among the cynics was London resident Drew Mcfadyen, who tweeted “Governments mustn't use cyber security as excuse for censorship ... I love irony as much as the next but seriously WTF.”
Reuters reports that John Kampfner, chief executive of the Index on Censorship, was also skeptical, telling the conference: “It's very easy to defend this case of black and white human rights against dictatorships around the world, but as soon as our own Western-style stability of the state is called into question then freedom of expression is expendable. There should be one rule for all, including Western governments.”
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, also addressed Britain’s alleged “doublespeak,” calling British courts’ “superinjunctions,” in which celebrities can block discussion of stories that embarrass them, “bad law.”
“There are better ways than to rely on government control,” he said.
Others were upset that the British government would not allow reporters into the sessions, forcing them to watch the conference on what many said were inaudible TVs.
Financial Times technology correspondent Maija Palmer tweeted Tuesday: “London Cyber has convinced me that the government should stay far from the internet — and organizing conferences on it!”
Over the course of the two-day conference, Internet activists and politicians from 60 countries, along with technology executives from Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and others, are gathering to discuss how to deal with cybersecurity threats without stifling freedom of speech.
Hague continued to defend Britain’s position Tuesday, saying that the country would “always be on the side of people aspiring for political and economic freedom,” but that in today’s world of “cyber free-for-all, we need rules of the road.”